By SEAN DALY
Times Pop Music Critic
Asking Natalie Merchant, the priggish, pop-culture-averse singer, about celebrity train wreck Lindsay Lohan is a little like asking Hillary Clinton to do the Cha Cha Slide. Unfair maybe, but also totally twisted fun.
Natalie, on your 1995 solo debut album, "Tigerlily," you bemoaned how a slobbering press treated the late River Phoenix. Are you shocked how ravenous celebrity culture has become in the Lindsay Lohan era?
"I have no idea who that is," the 46-year-old star says.
"Tell me what she's done," Merchant asks, sincerely inquisitive, on the phone from her first tour in seven years, supporting new album Leave Your Sleep. The singer will play a rare Ruth Eckerd Hall show Tuesday.
As you explain the dumb horribleness of La Lohan, you can hear Merchant — who was no less clipped, intimidating and charmingly clueless as a Jamestown, N.Y., teen fronting indie darlings 10,000 Maniacs — get quietly annoyed, her sanctimony primed for scolding action.
In other words, she is slow-burning into the Natalie Merchant we've loved and feared for three decades now: smart, sexy, scary as all get-out. And that voice, either talking or singing: soft but determined, stern and defiant but smoldering and warm.
"This form of voyeurism is cannibalizing someone's misfortune," says one of the great singers of her generation, who owns neither a television set nor, it can be reasoned, the latest issue of US Weekly. "It's a way of dehumanizing someone. We are all just fragile, flawed individuals."
The intensely private Merchant is not unaware of her iconoclastic rep. When asked if Lucia, her 7-year-old daughter with husband Daniel de la Calle, has ever seen an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants, Merchant intones not unlike John Houseman in The Paper Chase: "SpongeBob SquarePants did infiltrate on an airplane once. It was my husband's fault. But she doesn't like fast editing."
Instead, Merchant is proud to report that Lucia's all-time favorite movie is that nutty childhood classic Chariots of Fire.
Lucia also has "the full I Love Lucy series on DVD. She has to watch them in chronological order. She gets upset when they're shown out of order!"
When I suggest that Lucia is nothing less than "a little Natalie Merchant," Mom doesn't disagree: "She's very much my daughter. I didn't brainwash her. That's just the way she is."
There might not be any brainwashing going on, but you better believe there's plenty of brain-filling. Merchant's new album, the utterly ambitious Leave Your Sleep, sets 19th and 20th century poetry to a wide-ranging span of musical genres. Her first new product in seven quiet years, it was conceptualized to "introduce music to my daughter, open up doors for her."
Much of the poetry, found after scouring hundreds of collections, is playful, gentle, puns and lullabies and silliness. There are a few somber moments — Laurence Alma-Tadema's If No One Ever Marries Me is subtly devastating — but the adult themes are rarely jarring. That said, the accompanying music often swings well enough for grownups, too.
Jack Prelutsky's Bleezer's Ice-Cream ("I got cocoa mocha, macaroni / Tapioca, smoked bologna") is set to a ridiculously catchy Crescent City shuffle. William Brighty Rands' Topsyturvey-World gets a hip-swaying reggae beat. Wynton Marsalis adds trumpet to a particularly sexy blues reading of Nathalia Crane's The Janitor's Boy.
"I experimented a lot with the poems," says Merchant, who culled 55 poems to 26. It wasn't just "understanding what they meant," but where she would "place them stylistically."
In the case of Bleezer's: "He's got a happen' joint, so I took him down to New Orleans. It's just how I thought of him." Merchant later talked to Prelutsky about her interpretation of his work. "He never envisioned Ebenezer this way," she laughs, "but he loved the song."
With a diverse eight-piece band behind her, Merchant is filling her concert set list with great chunks of Leave Your Sleep. But longtime fans should also get a few of her solo hits (Wonder, Carnival, Kind & Generous) and maybe even a 10,000 Maniacs song (the sublime Hey Jack Kerouac was dusted off at a recent show).
"At this point, I've written over 200 songs. I get more excited about the new stuff," she says, "but I also want to honor the catalog. I don't plan to tour again very soon, so what's the difference if I do an extra hour."
When asked if this could be her last tour for another seven years, Merchant, who still lives in her native upstate New York, doesn't hesitate at all: "Probably. I've gotten use to civilian life. I like being someone people can depend on. I like being part of a community."
Most pop singers are simply begging for love when they talk about retirement. In the case of Merchant — well, let's just say you'd better see her while you can.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at tampabay.com/blogs/poplife.